Thousands of tomatoes that will make their way to local farm stands and farmers’ markets this summer are now in the ground on Budds Corners Road, safely protected from the frost and wind with a clever water insulation system. It’s one of Ken Migliorelli’s shrewd tricks as he begins his 45th season as one of Red Hook’s elder farmer statesmen.
This afternoon, wind smacking their faces, a team of half a dozen fruit and vegetable workers for Migliorelli Farm finished placing an individual protective bag, filled with two gallons of water, around each of the 8,000 grape and beefsteak tomato plants on a 1.5-acre patch of farmland.
“We are a month early, but that’s how I’ve been doing this for the past 35 years,” said Migliorelli.
Farmers in the Northeast typically wait until late May to plant their tomatoes, as overnight frosts and windchill can swiftly wipe out the crop. But Migliorelli likes to get a head start. This way, he says, the tomatoes will be ready to harvest by late June, after which they will be sold at Migliorelli’s local farmstands in Red Hook, Rhinebeck, and Mount Tremper and at farmers’ markets from Manhattan’s Union Square to Kingston.
But planting tomatoes a month early means Migliorelli has to get creative. As recently as Monday night, when a freezing rain scoured the area, overnight temperatures in Red Hook continued to dip below 32 degrees. To keep the plants alive, Migliorelli and a team of 20 workers set to work last Friday erecting small metal cages, which look like inverted lampshades, around the tomatoes they had just planted in the ground.
The cages serve as frames for the plastic bags, which are then placed over the plants and knotted. “It’s about creating a microclimate,” said Migliorelli. The sunlight heats the water, creating a warmer environment within the bag. Migliorelli hatched the tomatoes from seed in his greenhouse on Freeborne Lane in early March.
Once the weather warms, and the plants grow taller, the bags will be removed. Until then, the tomatoes will be able to withstand temperatures in the teens.
Migliorelli discovered the cages, called Saylor’s Caps after a farmer in Pennsylvania, at a conference some 30 years ago. He started with a lot of 2,000 cages and added more in the years that followed. Each year, he sterilizes all the cages by dipping them into a 300-gallon tub containing a bleach-and-water solution. They stack easily inside apple bins. “It’s a pretty nifty solution for early planting,” Migliorelli says.
To preserve the quality and health of the soil, the farm rotates crops on a three-year cycle. Next year, where the tomatoes are planted now, Migliorelli will grow barley and rye; the following year, vegetables.
Tomatoes are “one of the hottest farmstand items,” along with peaches and sweet corn, said Migliorelli. They are also one of his favorite fruits to grow. In March, the farm began planting greens, from spinach and broccoli rabe to kale, radishes, and peas at other parcels in the Red Hook area. This growing season, Migliorelli Farm, which remains one of Red Hook’s largest and oldest operating farms, will grow 150 acres of vegetables, 100 acres of mixed fruits, and 300 acres of grain.
Also this year, Migliorelli’s eldest daughter, Carly, will take on a larger role managing the farmers’ markets and farmstand side of the business while he oversees food production.
“I always look forward to the summer,” said Migliorelli. But, rising costs of fuel, seeds, and electricity have him worried. “I’ve never seen costs rise so quickly,” he added. Migliorelli just hopes he won’t have to raise prices at the farm stands. “It’s going to be a tough balance to remain profitable,” he said.